'The Art Of Self-Defense' Writer/Director Riley Stearns On How His Pitch-Black Comedy Became A Statement About Toxic Fandom [Interview]

The Art of Self-Defense is not your average karate kid tale. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a grown man who takes Karate classes after he survives a mugging. Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) gives him wisdom like "think German" and Anna (Imogen Poots) tries to help toughen Casey up. Things quickly go too far. 

The dark comedy from writer/director Riley Stearns may be the anti-underdog tale. There are no rousing victories, as Stearns prefers to bathe the whole movie in silence, and audiences may question who and what they're rooting for at various points. Casey is navigating a world that champions violence, so how is a man supposed to stand up for himself? 

Stearns spoke with /Film by phone about The Art of Self-Defense, which had its premiere at this year's SXSW Film Festival. The Art of Self-Defense is out in theaters today. 

This movie is so quiet. Did you have to take all the ambient sound out?

I really like films that don't let the score influence the tone too much. I people to feel things because the characters are feeling it, not because I'm telling you to feel it. That said, we do have a very tricky balance. One of the things is that the movie is very quiet, like you said. We didn't shoot this one on any sound stages. It was all found. There's a vet scene in the movie. It's supposed to be sad and funny at the same time, but it's all ambience. There's no score over it. That was the loudest, worst sounding room I've ever shot in. The amount of challenge that went into the sound design for that scene, cleaning it up and shredding out the horrible audio, our sound mixer Demetri [Evdoxiadis] did an incredible job. We did take some things and tone 'em down a little bit but other things are just on the day. Sometimes we play around with sound and quiet is usually the direction I go. That said, I am excited for the next movie. I want to play around a little bit more and add a little bit more score over something or lay it under it. I'm learning all this stuff as I go and figuring it out and seeing what's right for the story.

Martial arts movies are always about someone training until he can fight his bullies. This might be one of the first movies where the bullied person ends up becoming a bully himself which is a very modern perspective. Is this something you've been thinking about with regards to the underdog/martial arts movies?

I guess it was a theme, not with regards to martial arts, I was thinking more in the context of what people were expecting. Like you said, there are lots of martial arts movies where the trajectory you've grown up into and are conditioned to accept, but you  could take anything from any sports movie. Somebody who's an underdog and trains and works hard and eventually overcomes, or in the process of trying to overcome loses but ultimately gains more in their loss than they would have in their win. I didn't want that to happen in the same way. I wanted a movie that started off in that vein, then as it went along, essentially halfway through the film I wanted the rug to be pulled out from under you and you be woken up in a way that you thought you knew what was going to happen, and you have no idea. Along the way, like you said, he takes on the bully aspect. He's trying to come to the teachings of Sensei and most of those are very, very bad teachings, very overtly horrible things that he's embracing. I think even in a spoilery sense, even in the way that he kind of overcomes at the end, it's him embracing a little bit of that darkness that he's gathered along the way for the greater good. In my opinion, Casey may make some decisions in the way that he solves his problems that's almost like a self-sacrifice. I'm doing this because I have to so nobody else has to go through with it, or so nobody else has to deal with it in the future. For him, I think it's all about you honor the dojo, which is so funny to say in an interview, but he's really looking for the honor of the dojo and really concerned about that. He's willing to sacrifice his own morality for the greater good. That's what was important for me. That was something I definitely wanted to do.

We've started talking about, only in the last few years, that formerly bullied groups, like nerds and people who like Star Wars, have become bullies in toxic fandom, even if it's not physical. Do you end up commenting on that through The Art of Self-Defense?

I don't think that was an intention, but there's something about making a movie or any form of art, you have intentions but something will happen that you didn't intend. It doesn't make that inaccurate. So if people gain something out of it that it wasn't our intention, then I think that's amazing. I wasn't thinking particularly about people online or Twitter or those kind of things, but I do see the relation and correlation there. I think that's great. At the end of the day, my goal with this movie, just key on the nose, but it was really important to me that it's important to be yourself and not really think too much about what other people think of you. As long as you're a good person and you're doing things that don't hurt other people, whoever you are, just embrace that. Don't try to be something for somebody else. I do think it's a movie, and I said this a lot while shooting it, that I looked at it as a f***ed up afterschool special where, again talking about the structure of martial arts films, I thought about it as this is high school for Casey. He joins a new clique and that new clique is kind of a bad clique. He's got this group leader who's almost like the alpha of the clique. All these things line up in the structure of making new friends, you make an enemy of one of your friends who's the one that supported you the most and all that. At the end of the day, you overcome but you're overcoming it in a different way than you would expect. I like playing with those expectations and switching them around a little bit. It's definitely open to all the interpretations people have.

Are you satirizing the underdog myth?

I don't want to think I'm making fun of anything ever, especially my characters. I know that some people feel like I'm being so mean and beating Casey down too much. For me, I never look down at my characters. I see a lot of myself in Casey. Maybe that's why it's okay for me and I don't see that I'm being mean to him, because I feel like any hit that he gets is like me taking a jab at my own psyche and who I am and who I think I'm supposed to be. Satirical maybe isn't necessarily because I don't want to see it as making fun of something, and I think that satirizing something sometimes means you think you're better than something and I definitely don't. But I do want to have fun with something and expectations. I want to play with those expectations and play with my opinion of myself and other men and who we are as a society. All those are ideas that are under the surface and then in other instances, super strong nose right in front of your face. But I never want anything to feel like it's preachy or talking down to the audience. I want people to still be able to relate and have fun.

Do you think toxic men like Sensei will get that he's not a good role model and they shouldn't be like him?

I can't speak for other people and I hope that people who watch it see a little bit of themselves in Sensei. Obviously Sensei is an over the top character and he's a very on the nose representation of masculinity to a fault. That's what it's supposed to be. I hope some people see a little bit of themselves in it and ask some questions of themselves. I also think that a lot of those kind of guys are set in their ways as well. Who's to say, but if the film is making fun of anything, it's making fun of that idea of toxic masculinity. It's two words I don't think I ever thought of as I was writing the script because they weren't thrown away in the same way when I was writing it. In a weird way, even though I wrote it four years ago, I think it's more relevant now than it would've been had I made it that year. So everything happens for a reason. I hope people are able to get in on the joke of it all, but I also have no delusions of grandeur. I'm not making any statements with this movie, but maybe a comment on that was important for me. 

Sensei and Anna aren't jokes. They believe in Karate, right?

Very much so. I feel like Sensei believes in Karate and is actually very, very good at Karate, but he's drunk on power at the dojo. As a character, he probably outside of the dojo is still picked on. If he goes to the grocery store, he's wearing his socks and sandals with a tucked in shirt. I think that people snicker at him behind his back and he feels that. So he brings that negative energy into the dojo and that's how he goes about the way that he teaches, especially in the night classes. So I think he's got a little bit of hurt in him and he's reacting to that in a negative way. Anna is kind of like the counter to him. She sees all the good that can come from Karate and that's why she sticks around and she sees that there's the next generation of children coming up in it two. She's sticking around because she knows that even though it's being taught to her and to students in a way that is not doing any good, she sees what the overall can do and she hopes that maybe she can have an effect on people. It's one of those things where if she sticks around, she thinks she'll help steer it in the right direction here and there and that's important to her. She, like Casey, sees honor in the dojo and wants it to be a good thing but so far, she's not been able to make much of an impact and that's frustrating for her, but it's also why she feels like she has to stick around. She has to be there and just try even if it fails. I would say that Casey's not necessarily good or evil. I think that he's just pliable and malleable and he's a sponge. I think that Anna's probably the good but she comes across as a little bit more rage. She's got this harder exterior. She's trying to protect herself and guard her morality. 

the art of self-defense trailer

You wrote this before you made Faults?

I wrote it just after Faults. I wrote Faults in 2013 as soon as I got back from Sundance with my short The Cub. Literally the next day that I was back from Sundance, I started writing these scripts. Keith and Jess Calder who went on to make the movie, I met them two weeks after that. I wrote Faults in two weeks, they read it and then a week later they said they wanted to make it. That went to SXSW in 2014. I went through the festival circuit with Faults, then the release of Faults. It came out in 2015 and after that I realized I didn't have a script ready to go. So I started really trying to figure out what that next thing was going to be and there was a little bit of catch-up. I finally had latched onto this idea of a Karate movie. I finished it at the end of 2015. It feels like a short amount of time in retrospect but at the time I remember being kind of scared that I didn't have anything ready to go and I was concerned that the momentum from Faults was going to fade away and people were going to forget about it. The script for The Art of Self-Defense, to be fair, I knew going into it that it was going to be a hard movie to get made. To Andrew Kortschak's credit, who ended up producing the film with his company End Cue, they saw something in it and they were the only ones that did. The movie would not have gotten made if they didn't step in.

Was fight choreography a new experience for you?

It was, although me training in jiujitsu, I'm familiar with motions and body movements and what elements I wanted in the project. I'm not a stand up fighter although I'm taking [classes] now trying to learn how to stand up. We brought on Mindy Kelly who is an incredible stunt coordinator and Karate expert. Her very small team of stunt people kind of brought these fights to life, on a smaller scale than I think a larger movie would have been able to do. We had to keep it pretty small and contained with our team, especially time-wise. There were days where we had to finish a gigantic fight scene, like Imogen Poots' fight scene with Steve Terada in night class, that was shot before lunch one day. We got in, we started shooting it and it had to be over before lunch because we had a gigantic dialogue scene after it. And there was no room for error. People had to bring it. It was a combination of the way that I wanted to direct it and to feel like Mindy's stunt coordinating Imogen and Steve's choreography in that scene and then my cinematographer, Michael Ragen who I've worked with on three projects now. All of us working in unison and harmony to get this to work the way that it did, it was stressful but in a way that I never felt like we weren't going to be able to do it. I think that all the things worth doing are going to be a little tricky and challenging. I'm so glad that we pushed ourselves to be able to really open up and make it as good as possible.

Was fight choreography different for a comedy than it might've been for a straight action movie?

I guess a little bit. We do have a little bit of comedy in each fight. The only one that doesn't have as much of that is a fight scene toward the end where there's a head smashing into a particular metal object on the street. I watch that scene and for me it never felt particularly brutal but I think it's just because I was there and I thought about how I was directing and shooting it and how we were rehearsing the audience, but I watch it with an audience and there are definitely no laughs in that scene. If anything, there are people who are disgusted by it. I think violence should be a bit much sometimes because I don't like glorifying violence. I think it should be used when it's necessary and for this movie I don't think it was very necessary. But to be fair too, we have scenes where the "violence" was supposed to be a little comedic. The fight with Sensei and Jesse in the middle of the movie, there's a little bit of humor. There are some kids watching the fight and that's fun to be able to play with. Then there was also a moment in Imogen's scene where she's fighting on the ground and she just really wanted to kick the guy in the balls. I thought that was hilarious and for a movie about masculinity and the delicate balance of being too overt in your masculinity to the point where it's negative, her just kicking a guy in the balls was funny to me. That was all her so I'm glad that she would throw those scenes in and improv with us. I think we were able to have fun with out fight scenes in a way that an action movie that takes itself seriously wouldn't. But in an action movie like John Wick, I was cracking up at every fight scene they had in that film. The repetition of the horse kicking somebody to death and then a horse kicking somebody again to death, that was hysterical to me. I don't think we're alone in getting to have fun with our fight scenes but I think we had to serve the tone of a movie that was overtly comedic other than comedic at times. I think we maybe amped it up a little more.

My favorite fight in John Wick 3 was the knife fight where they just kept finding more knives to throw at each other.

It's so good. It's so over the top. It's so funny. Even the book in the opening fight in the library, where he put the book in his mouth and breaks the guy's job with it. It's so violent and horrible, gory but I laughed. I think that maybe makes me a little bit of a horrible person but I also think that it's just sometimes stuff that's that over the top, it's impossible not to have that visceral reaction of either disgust or laughter. 

Are you writing something new?

I've actually written something at the end of last year, this new script called Dual. It's a pseudo-sci-fi. It's very much along the tone of The Art of Self-Defense but I like to tell people that it's maybe a little bit darker than The Art of Self-Defense but at times funnier. I don't know what that means. There are people who argue that no, this is way darker or it's way funnier. I'm super excited about Dual and I'm now in the process of casting it right now. As soon as this one's out in the world I can focus my efforts solely on Dual and I'm also figuring out what the next thing after Dual is going to be. I'm excited to just keep working and keep creating. I hope I get to keep making stuff that I want to see made. I love making movies that I want to see made and I want to see on the screen, but I also want to make movies that people enjoy and want to watch. I'm definitely not making movies solely for myself. That's something that I hear people say in the past, all they care about is that they like what they're making. They don't care what other people think. I think that's a disservice to the project and to the people that are working on it. I want people to see my stuff and I want them to respond to it and relate to it, or see it and not like it and that's fine too. I want there to be a reaction. I just want to keep on working.